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Q. Our company CEO has confided in me that he is contemplating leaving his position in the next six to 12 months. I feel that I am the obvious choice to replace him. I’ve been a loyal and dedicated employee to the company for the past 10 years and have held various positions ranging from individual contributor to management to executive level. And for the past two years I have held the position of vice president of finance and operations. What steps can I take to secure my future with this company without jeopardizing my relationship with the CEO whom I directly report to and is also my friend?

A. You are in a sticky situation that has drama written all over it. The CEO, who we’ll name Bob, is ethically wrong in so many ways for asking you to keep such critical information confidential. My first question to you is, “What type of a working relationship do you have with Bob?” Because it sounds like the lines have been crossed between professional and personal. It sounds like he is using your personal relationship to protect his professional position. Maybe he’s going through major life changes – divorce, illness or a death in the family? Or he may have certain bonuses tied to certain criteria or stock options he can exercise in the next six to 12 months, which is why he feels the need to keep his plans confidential?

I recommend that you schedule some time with Bob outside of the office and have a heart-to-heart conversation with him, one professional to another Take the guess work out of the equation, and try to find out what is really going on his life.

What is his motivation behind his decision to end his employment with XYZ Company – age, health, financial, other business opportunities? Remind him why it is so important to discuss his plans with the key stakeholders of the company.

His decision has the potential to ultimately affect so many – investors, employees, customers, partners and the community. His decision to move on requires careful planning and strategizing, which I’m certain he is aware of. Or is he? Express to Bob your motivation to continue to develop your career with XYZ Company and that you are very interested in being considered as his replacement when the time comes. Discuss with him the potential of working together to develop your knowledge, skills and abilities that may be lacking in certain areas and will be required for the next leader of this company. You are in a unique situation because of your tenure with the company and your obvious relationship with Bob. What a great opportunity for you if you play your cards right.

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An aside: According to industry research, some business leaders spend their whole lives developing their careers by building successful companies but sacrificing their personal lives along the way. After years of battle, they cling to the power and lifestyles they have become so accustomed to.

Too many executives don’t know when it’s time to quit or move and as result fail to put succession planning in place.

According to industry experts, CEOs who have extended stays with companies risk their reputations and the value of the organization. Be astute – you need to know when it’s time for you to move on for your professional career development.

All executives need to have a good succession strategy, too. Companies take the risk of losing top talent when a CEO stays too long, bleeding the organization of the very people it needs if it is to grow.

Investors are known to flee when an all too powerful CEO leaves late and the new CEO isn't well known to the investment community. People fear that the new leadership won't be up to task. So it is in everyone’s best interest to develop an early succession plan for the health of the company and investors and their valued customers and employees.

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Jennifer Laxton is a senior consultant and coach with Executive Search Associates in Santa Rosa, www.esa.com. ESA is an executive search and consulting company. You can reach her at 707-217-4535 or jklaxton@esa.com. If you have questions with regards to your situation, send an e-mail to askjen@esa.com.